At Sinai Chapels, we pride ourselves on being able to provide the community with the highest level of service, commitment and dedication to our mission. In large part, this comes from being a fourth-generation family owned and operated Jewish funeral home. What exactly does this mean? What makes a mortuary a “Jewish” one? What is the difference between a “Jewish” funeral and a non-Jewish or non-sectarian funeral?
Jewish funeral and burial customs, traditions and laws are based on a millennia-old tradition that demands the careful attention and rigorous devotion to a single principle: K’vod Hamet, respect for the deceased. Every action we take is specifically geared to fulfilling this obligation, the details of which have developed over thousands of years of Jewish life. In this limited message, I would like to delineate several of the basics of this traditions.
Traditional Jewish belief teaches that when a person dies, the neshama, the soul or essence of the person, hovers near the body, its physical container on loan for use in this world, waiting to return to its Maker in Eternity. Since it would be insensitive to leave the body alone at this time, it is a sign of the deepest respect that the deceased not be left unattended until interment is completed. A shomer (watcher or guardian) is a pious Jew who watches over the deceased and recites passages from the Book of Psalms, bringing comfort to the neshama. Members of the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) then perform the tahara, the complete washing and dressing of the deceased according to Jewish law and custom. Prayers asking for forgiveness of the deceased and the soul’s eternal peace are offered at this time. The body is dressed in tachrichim, a hand-made suit of white linen garments, including a cap, shirt, pants, belt, jacket and slippers, modeled after the sacred white uniform worn by the High Priest on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, when he stood before G-d. The absence of pockets accentuates the fact that no worldly belongings accompany us, and its simplicity symbolizes that all are equal before their Creator.
The body is then placed in the aron, the casket. The casket must not be made of any material that impedes the body’s natural return to the elements. Therefore, an all-wood casket is used, in keeping with the Biblical teaching, “dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return”. This also teaches us that burial must be directly in the ground. For family and friends to participate in filling the grave is regarded not only as an obligation, but the highest privilege in Jewish life. Caring for the burial needs of a loved one is regarded in our tradition as a chesed shel emet, the ultimate act of kindness.
In summary, a Jewish funeral is concerned with the feelings of the deceased as well as the feelings of the mourners and every act we perform is guided by the noblest feelings of compassion and respect.